Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Pro-life and death in Texas

By Hannah Sparks

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Courtesy of Texas Governor Rick Perry/Flickr

Courtesy of Texas Governor Rick Perry/Flickr

This month’s installment of, “Am I living in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ or is this real life?” has finally come to an end. For now. Now begins the debate over whether the debacle should have even happened in the first place. Spoiler alert: The answer is no.

More than two dozen U.S. states have laws that prohibit pregnant women from being removed from life support or otherwise being denied life-sustaining treatment. Texas has some of the strictest laws on the subject: hospitals in that state can even violate Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) orders previously signed by the woman if she is pregnant when hospitalized with a condition requiring such measures. The age of the fetus has no bearing on the law, either, meaning that the woman may be kept on life support for months before doctors can even evaluate the viability of the fetus.

The words look strange on the page, but when the hypothetical becomes real, it gets even stranger. See the case of Marlise Munoz, a Texas woman declared brain dead in November after apparently suffering from a pulmonary embolism during the 14th week of pregnancy. She was placed on a respirator and ventilator for two months despite her earlier wishes and those of her grieving family that she not be.

Controversy sprung up around the case not only because it was a scene straight out of a feminist dystopia, but also because, legally, Munoz was dead the entire time. According to Texas state law and the Uniform Determination of Death Act, which states the criteria for death in all 50 U.S. states, brain death constitutes actual death, meaning that Munoz has been legally deceased since November 28.

Doctors were keeping her organs and blood running with machines in order to provide an environment in which the fetus may have possibly survived. In other words, she was kept in this artificial state to serve as an incubator.

Munoz’s family sued John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth earlier this month in an effort to have Marlise removed from the machines. Their lawyers, Heather King and Jessica Janicek, affirmed the legality of Marlise’s death and said that to “conduct surgical procedures on a deceased body is nothing short of outrageous.”

As reported by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, court documents filed by the hospital say, “To interpret the statute so that life-sustaining treatment is withdrawn, causing the death of the unborn child,” would be “contrary to this state’s expressed commitment to the life and health of unborn children.” King and Janicek allege that the hospital was actually misconstruing the law and applying sections of it out of context.

Lawmakers hadn’t even considered the law applying to someone who was dead. The law is meant to apply to living women who are in comas or other vegetative states from which they might eventually recover. It appears that the hospital kept her on machines just in case taking her off of them would break the law or kill the fetus, which was already, for all intents and purposes, dead as well.

A judge finally ordered that Munoz be removed from the machines last week, following the family’s legal action and after doctors determined that her fetus was severely deformed and unviable – that is, unable to survive outside the womb.

Though Munoz’s family can now finally make peace with her death, the controversy isn’t over. Her mother wants to see the law rewritten or repealed so that no other family has to go through the ordeal they faced. Not only did they have to cope with a tragic death of a pregnant loved one, but they were also forced to watch her body desecrated and turned into a science experiment in the name of the sanctity of life. Completely absent from the equation is the sanctity of death, which demands equal respect.

End-of-life issues aside, the mere existence of this kind of law has serious implications for women’s reproductive rights, which are already in dire straits in Texas. When taken in context of the state’s recent strict abortion legislation, it appears that a pregnant woman’s thoughts and desires are worth next to nothing in that state.

This case illustrates a fundamental hypocrisy in the pro-life movement, and Texan law. It advocates so hard for the sanctity of fetal life and then contradicts itself, devaluing the lives (and deaths) of humans outside of the womb. It has shown a far less carefully-curated, altruistically-motivated side of the pro-life argument that uses sympathetic rhetoric to advocate something that is actually very repressive and does more harm than good.

Pro-life ideologues would have you believe that, regardless of the circumstances of the pregnancy, when a woman becomes pregnant, she must bear that child no matter what. No matter if she doesn’t want to. No matter if delivering the baby would kill her. No matter if she became pregnant through rape.

No matter what, that baby will be delivered, or given every single possibility to survive, even if it means the destruction of female autonomy, the death of the mother or the desecration of the bodies of deceased pregnant women. Life is sacred, y’all.

But what if God intended the mother to die? Apparently God’s wills are ranked in order of political utility. Marlise Munoz’s story is a shining example of the intrusive, unnecessary suffering restrictive governmental meddling in reproductive rights causes.

Using women’s bodies as political battlegrounds is something Texas has gotten good at – too good. How much longer will, or can, moderate and liberal Texans, especially women, stand for it?

Hannah Sparks is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]

1 Comment

One Response to “Pro-life and death in Texas”

  1. Genghis Khan on February 3rd, 2014 1:22 pm

    Surprisingly, Hannah, I would agree with you that if the family and Hannah herself had a directive for no heroic measures, she should be taken off life support.

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